Media coverage key factor in rise of mass shootings, expert argues
Published Thursday, August 4, 2016 10:00PM EDT
A newly released paper argues that widespread media coverage of mass shootings is to blame for their rise, and calls on media outlets to stop publishing the killers’ names and photos.
The paper, titled “Mass Shooters and the Media Contagion Effect” and co-authored by Western New Mexico University psychology professor Jennifer B. Johnston, was presented Thursday at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in Denver, Colo.
Johnston and her co-author, Andrew Joy, reviewed past studies and media articles about mass shootings and concluded that “media contagion” is largely responsible for the deadly events.
“We would argue identification with prior mass shooters made famous by extensive media coverage, including names, faces, writings, and detailed accounts of their lives and backgrounds, is a more powerful push toward violence than mental health status or even access to guns,” they wrote.
The authors note that the violent media contagion effect has been studied and debated since the early 1980s. Last year, a widely-cited study by Arizona State University researcher Sherry Towers found “significant evidence” that mass shootings in the U.S. are spurred by “similar events in the immediate past.” Towers and her co-authors also found a significant association between the prevalence of firearm ownership and mass killings involving guns in each state.
In their paper, Johnston and Joy argue that traditional media outlets and social media sites give shooters exactly the kind of recognition and fame they desire by publishing their photos, details of their lives, and, in some cases, the disturbing notes and manifestos they left behind.
In an interview with CTV News, Johnston acknowledged that studying mass shootings is “a complicated issue” and that media coverage is certainly not the only problem. Gun laws, access to firearms and mental health issues are also key factors, she said.
But Johnston said she decided to study media’s role in an age when the 24-hour news cycle provides an “incredible focus” on mass shooters.
“One group of researchers that we reviewed found that killers are often given double the coverage that victims are given, or first responders or any other heroic efforts on the scene.”
For someone who sees violence as a solution to his problems, the sheer volume of news coverage surrounding mass shootings can provide “the feeling that there’s guaranteed fame from committing an act like this,” she said.
'Don’t name the killer'
“We suggest to media that you don’t name the killer, you don’t show their face or their identity and you don’t spend time discussing their thoughts, interest, backgrounds, choice of firearms, etc.,” Johnston told CTV News.
If the “media contagion” models that Johnston and her colleagues reviewed are correct, she believes that such media restraint could prevent up to a third of mass shootings in the U.S. within one to two years.
Some law enforcement officers in the U.S. have avoided publicly naming mass shooters. A sheriff in Oregon made headlines last fall when he refused to name the gunman who killed nine people at a community college, saying it would only glorify him.
More recently, several French news organizations announced that they would no longer publish photos of people responsible for terrorist attacks in the country.
Johnston’s paper notes that most mass shooters fit a certain profile. They are white males, usually between the ages of 20 to 50, who share three key traits: serious depression, social isolation and pathological narcissism.
"Unfortunately, we find that a cross-cutting trait among many profiles of mass shooters is desire for fame," Johnston said.
Michael Arntfield, a criminologist and professor at Western University in Ontario says mass shooters are turning to social media and other online platforms to gain, “not only inspiration from other shooters, but then also to emulate them and to in effect carry on the same message that other shooters have as well.”
Arntfield says shooters often “rehearse their crimes,” construct a narrative and eventually “act it out” online first.
Arntfield told CTV News he agrees that media coverage of such people should be decreased, if not omitted altogether.
“The problem is, how do you ensure compliance with this,” Arntfield said of a possible “no-coverage” policy. “It would take significant agreement between major media outlets to avoid doing this.”
Sandy Simpson, the chief of forensic psychiatry at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, said there’s “a lot to be taken seriously and considered” in Johnston’s paper.
“A partial solution may be not reporting the more salacious aspects of the manifestos of these people,” he said. “We can decrease the dosage as it were, even though it is not possible to remove those type of things from the public space altogether."
With a report from CTV’s medical specialist Avis Favaro and producer Elizabeth St. Philip